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Shawna, N v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Oregon

July 22, 2019

SHAWNA, N[1], Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Betsy R. Shepherd, Of Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney, and Renata Gowie, Assistant United States Attorney, Leisa A. Wolf, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of General Counsel, Social Security Administration Of Attorneys for Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MICHAEL H. SIMON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Shawna N. (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) pursuant to the Social Security Act. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on the proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)). It means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quoting Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039).

         Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is a rational reading of the record, and this Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193, 1196 (9th Cir. 2004). “[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (quotation marks omitted)). A reviewing court, however, may not affirm the Commissioner on a ground upon which the Commissioner did not rely. Id.; see also Bray, 554 F.3d at 1226.

         BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiff's Application

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income with a protective filing date of November 6, 2001. Plaintiff alleges disability beginning July 27, 1999. Plaintiff was born on January 30, 1974 and was 25 years old on the alleged disability onset date. She is now 45 years old. Plaintiff alleges disability due to post-traumatic headaches, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, fibromyalgia, obesity, cognitive disorder, and depression.

         Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALD”). ALJ Charles Evans held a hearing on July 31, 2003. After the hearing, ALJ Evans issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Plaintiff sought review of that decision, the Appeals Council granted review, and the case was remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings. ALJ Evans held another hearing on May 18, 2005. On January 20, 2006, ALJ Evans again found Plaintiff not disabled. Plaintiff sought review of that decision. The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review and remanded the case to ALJ Dan Hyatt for further proceedings.

         ALJ Hyatt held a hearing on July 31, 2007. On December 8, 2007, ALJ Hyatt found Plaintiff not disabled. Plaintiff sought review of that decision, but this time the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request and so she filed an action in this court. On May 25, 2010, this court issued an order remanding the case to the agency for another hearing. ALJ Hyatt held a hearing on December 14, 2010. In a decision issued on January 14, 2011, ALJ Hyatt found Plaintiff not disabled. After the Appeals Council denied review, Plaintiff filed another action in this court, and on January 23, 2014, this court issued an order remanding the case to the agency for another hearing, ordering that on remand Plaintiff be examined by a board-certified rheumatologist. 6:12- cv-02067-BR, ECF 25. After a fifth hearing, this time before ALJ Kelly Wilson, at which a medical expert rheumatologist testified but did not examine Plaintiff, ALJ Wilson issued a decision on September 27, 2016 finding Plaintiff not disabled. See AR 1142-1187. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the commissioner. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of that decision.

         B. The Sequential Analysis

         A claimant is disabled if he or she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). “Social Security Regulations set out a five-step sequential process for determining whether an applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.” Keyser v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 (DIB), 416.920 (SSI); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Each step is potentially dispositive. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The five-step sequential process asks the following series of questions:

1. Is the claimant performing “substantial gainful activity?” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). This activity is work involving significant mental or physical duties done or intended to be done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1510, 416.910. If the claimant is performing such work, she is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two.
2. Is the claimant's impairment “severe” under the Commissioner's regulations? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or combination of impairments is “severe” if it significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a). Unless expected to result in death, this impairment must have lasted or be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 416.909. If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the analysis proceeds to step three.
3. Does the claimant's severe impairment “meet or equal” one or more of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment does not meet or equal one or more of the listed impairments, the analysis continues. At that point, the ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”). This is an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations imposed by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). After the ALJ determines the claimant's RFC, the analysis proceeds to step four.
4. Can the claimant perform his or her “past relevant work” with this RFC assessment? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step five.
5. Considering the claimant's RFC and age, education, and work experience, is the claimant able to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c), ...

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